Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fiction as Simulation

NOTE: This entry is part of a handout given at a related presentation to the Boulder Writers Meetup on 2/27/10.

Stories are means by which people can share experiences through the creation of representative memories, and they have at least two uses: education and entertainment. Education provides a basis for appreciating and changing our physical reality, while entertainment is a way to modify our experience without appreciably changing physical reality. Arguably, the most enduring stories both educate and entertain, enabling us to alter the world so it provides the experiences we want.

Physical and social scientists use abstractions such as mathematics to explain how parts of the world work and what we can observe. These abstractions are embodied in theories, which include things that we may not currently be able to observe, and suggest ways reality can change (or might have changed) along with details about the results.

The process of exploring the different versions of reality embodied by a theory is called “simulation.” Simulation can take many forms; in engineering and science, for example, simulations often use computers to generate numbers and graphs. When simulation is encoded in stories, the result is fiction.

Fictional stories, of course, often share experiences that reside purely in an author's mind. These experiences define an imaginary reality that, if fully developed, has its own consistent elements and rules which can be used to create other experiences, much as a theory is used to predict observations. Whether the author draws on personal knowledge or on the predictions of a theory, the outcome is still a work of fiction, but the latter will have an educational component that can yield benefits far beyond the initial exposure to the story.

The author could alternatively choose a theory that itself is fictional, but the process of creating a fictional story using simulation would still be the same. It begins with defining "initial conditions" such as the setting, characters, and rules that govern behavior in the story's artificial "environment" (the theoretical structure that determines observations). The simulation then occurs, with the author acting as a reporter of what unfolds afterwards and focusing on specific characteristics of interest, which requires selecting one or more points of view and using an understanding of the audience to effectively communicate what happens.

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